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July 20, 2017

Landry: Hazelton’s new beginning washes away bitter fall

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Vidal Hazelton is vowing to be good to Edmonton. It’s the least he can do, considering that Edmonton has been good to him.

“I think, for the first time in my life, I’ve learned to become a professional here,” says the veteran receiver, given a new lease on football life by the Eskimos late last season, a couple of days after he and two other prominent receivers were punted by the Toronto Argonauts.

“I just wanted to come here and prove to these guys that I wasn’t the person that they was making me out to be from the whole release from Toronto.”

Hazelton is slowly rising in that deep and talented Edmonton receiving corps, perhaps on his way back to the rarefied air that he’d discovered in Toronto, when he was named the East Division’s  Most Outstanding Rookie, in 2015. That year, Hazelton burst onto the scene with two other first-year Toronto receivers, Tori Gurley and Kevin Elliott. The three of them wowed the CFL with great catches and at times, dominating physical play.

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Hazelton, who’d arrived after numerous try-outs in the NFL, finished the season with 70 catches for 803 yards and six touchdowns.

The good times and productive games would not last, in Toronto.

“I’m happy to be here,” says Hazelton, insisting that he knows he is in control of his own destiny, determined not to let the past snap at his heels in anything other than a constructive way. “Happy for a brand new start. Happy to be in the position that I am right now.”

Appearing in all three regular season games for Edmonton, Hazelton is showing signs that he’s on course to bounce back from the controversy and disappointment of 2016. With 14 catches for 159 yards and one touchdown, the lanky, speedy 29-year-old out of the University of Cincinnati is finding a niche in a fleet of receivers that includes the accomplished Adarius Bowman and rising star Brandon Zylstra, as well as head-turning first-year receiver Duke Williams.

“We have a lot of good receivers here,” says Hazelton about his place in the pecking order. “I’m not a selfish person. I just go out there and do what the coaches ask of me.”

There are a number of factors at play in Hazelton’s apparent reclamation. He says he loves the city of Edmonton and the way the Eskimos’ organization does things. He feels very comfortable with all his teammates, not just his compatriots in the receiving corps. He likes his coaches, including offensive coordinator (and receivers coach) Carson Walch, whom Hazelton says is “one of the best receiving coaches I’ve had, ever.”

One more thing: Vidal Hazelton was given an ice-cold shower last autumn, when he was benched and then cut by the Argos. It got his attention.

“It could be taken away from you at anytime,” he says, reflectively. “I always just try to go out there and play with that mindset where I can’t ever let that happen again. That’s how it’s been so far and so far it’s been working for me so I just wanna keep it up.”

“I’m a whole lot better of a person here. That’s one thing I wish I could’ve been doing when I was in Toronto, you know, just being a lot more professional about a lot of things.”

Eskimos receiver Vidal Hazelton on his time in Toronto

Vidal Hazelton’s tumultuous two seasons with the Argos ended suddenly last fall (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

After signing with Edmonton last October, Hazelton arrived out of a cloud of Argos’ controversy, released on the same day as Gurley, Elliott and another receiver, Phil Bates. The moves came a day after the Argonauts were thumped in Montreal, and a day after a visibly upset head coach Scott Milanovich told reporters in a media scrum that there would be changes coming.

Hazelton was already in Milanovich’s bad books and wasn’t even taken on the trip to Montreal, a punctuating move that came on the heels of a decline that was accompanied by stories of attitude problems – not just about Hazelton but about the other three as well – circulating through the media. How could a group of so obviously talented receivers be jettisoned just like that?

It’s easy and quite understandable to forgive onlookers for assuming there was more to the story in the midst of the reports. It’s worth noting that Hazelton had also been a healthy scratch during his splendid rookie campaign, removed from the Toronto line-up after a number of penalties, even being reprimanded on the sidelines by Milanovich during a game in Winnipeg after being flagged for objectionable conduct.

But Hazelton claims he can’t tell you exactly why he was let go – “I never got a full, straight up reason” – and he seems to believe his fate was tied to those of the other three.

“For a lot of reasons, I think we all got crumbled into the same cookie,” Hazelton says.

“I wish it would have ended a lot better,” he says of Toronto and any residual regret. “I enjoyed everybody in that program. From equipment staff to everybody.”

In snapping up Hazelton, the Edmonton brain trust – led by now former general manager Ed Hervey – made a few things clear last October. “He wanted me to come in here with a clear mind and just put all that stuff behind me,” says Hazelton of Hervey.

Head Coach Jason Maas let Hazelton know that he probably wouldn’t get into the line-up for the rest of the season but that there would be ample opportunity in 2017 if things were working out.

“I knew it was a bigger picture,” says Hazelton, who had to practise some patience while the Eskimos pushed into the playoffs.

“I was just really focused on, you know, just being a good teammate, showing everybody that I’m not what the media was making me out to be,” he says.

Vidal Hazelton hauls in a pass against Jonathon Mincy during a game in 2017 (Walter Tychnowicz/CFL.ca)

While Hazelton maintains he doesn’t really know what happened in Toronto, that notion does get a little confused during the conversation. Keep talking to him and it’s apparent that he does have at least some idea, because he presses on about doing things differently now that he’s an Eskimo.

Maybe he has a subconscious sense of it. Or maybe he’s fully aware and he just doesn’t really want to talk about it. It soon becomes clear that he professes to be of a disciplined mindset and if that is the case, the Eskimos are polishing up some gold.

“I’ve learned to become a better professional out here,” says Hazelton, “just seeing the way these guys handle themselves and the way they approach practice and the way they do things. I’m a whole lot better of a person here. That’s one thing I wish I could’ve been doing when I was in Toronto, you know, just being a lot more professional about a lot of things. Just approaching everything with that mindset.”

“Last year was probably one of the toughest years ever for me,” he says.  “I learned a lot from last year and it’s helping me a lot this year. Just my whole approach, like never taking a play off.”

The bitter taste of a spiralling Toronto tenure is gone, now, as Hazelton charts an upward trajectory in Edmonton. The marks may remain but he feels he’s better for having had the experience. And now, he’s focusing on keeping his head down and enjoying his re-launch in green and gold.

“I’m really happy over here, he says. “I really like it over here a lot.”